Innovative banjoist Jen Kruger has been named as the 2013 recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music. The prize, created and endowed by Martin, includes a $50,000 honorarium and, typically, opportunities to perform both on stage and on television with Steve.
Prior recipients Noam Pikelny, Sammy Shelor, and Mark Johnson have seen their visibility and professional opportunities escalate after being so named, which Steve says is precisely the incentive behind the award.
Each year’s winner is selected by a committee of noted banjo players, including Martin, Pete Wernick, Béla Fleck, Alison Brown, J.D. Crowe, and others.
Kruger is a Swiss native, who relocated to North Carolina with his brother Uwe as an adult after forming their group, The Kruger Brothers. His banjo style is hard to categorize, with forays into classical as well as bluegrass music, but is perhaps best defined by his original compositions. These are thoughtful, wonderfully lyrical, and highly musical pieces written for the banjo, which he performs with a stunning level of dexterity and skill.
Here is one example, a selection from his 2007 album, The Suite, performed earlier this summer at the Red, White and Bluegrass festival in North Carolina.
Like the previous honorees, Kruger was notified of his award by overnight mail, which he said caught him completely off guard.
“This morning the package came, and I didn’t know what to expect when I took it. I didn’t even look at who it was from, I just opened it. It was a wonderful surprise.
I haven’t even spoken to Steve yet. First I wanted to call my wife, and she was gone with our daughter. I wanted to talk with her first.
And then I had to think about it for a while.
Not being an American, and coming to this country as an immigrant, to be accepted so warmly is amazing, and quite humbling. It is really touching.
I remember as a boy having a banjo, and not even knowing how to play it, just hearing it would have me imagining other worlds. Imagining this award wouldn’t even have been believable to me then.”
Here is another example of Kruger’s virtuosity, his version of the first Bach Cello Suite arranged for banjo.
Jens is not only deeply appreciative for the award, he also spoke quite highly of Martin as a musician.
“What I admire about Steve’s banjo playing is that every album he does is different. I have to say that the hardest thing to do in music is melody. But Steve always comes up with melodies that people can relate to. It helps attract people to the banjo, because of the melodies. That’s really an art form.
It is one thing to construct variations on a theme, but melody remains a mystical thing. It’s such an abstract process, and Steve excels at it.”
The Kruger Brothers will be performing at the World of Bluegrass and Wide Open Bluegras festival in Raleigh later this month, and we hope to get a more detailed interview with Jens at that time.
Congratulations, Jens! The prize is well deserved.